How Ted Turner Ended Up With Yellowstone’s Most-Prized Bison

A judge decides that the billionaire media mogul gets to keep 75 percent of the calves of state-owned bison currently under his care.

American bison graze in a meadow in Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming. (Photo: Creative Commons)

May 17, 2013· 2 MIN READ
has an ASME Award, edits for Backpacker Magazine and writes for Outside, Skiing, and more.

It's a quaint picture: 74-year-old billionaire rancher Ted Turner out on his trusty steed roaming the Montana range with his herd of domesticated bison. In this particular image, he's galloping across Flying D Ranch, not far from Yellowstone Park.

As he told the Bozeman Chronicle back in October 2011, he came to Montana three decades ago "mainly to go fishing."

But he bought the Flying D and three other ranches for the bison and other wildlife. You may know Turner as the former CNN mogul who lost his fortune in a disastrous merger with AOL Time Warner. But to those who live, work around, and care about bison in Montana, he is a lightening rod for controversy.

It all started back in 1989, when, after buying the 113,000-acre Flying D Ranch, he sold off all of the cattle. Shortly thereafter, he repopulated the land with the great American bison. Since then, his herd (spread across ranches in seven different states) has grown to 55,000, 11 percent of the world's population of 500,000.

People who think bison should roam freely in America have always had a problem with Turner. But in 2010, when Montana governor Brian Schweitzer requested that he set aside a temporary home for 80 Yellowstone bison that had been quarantined so wildlife managers could see if they were free of the cow-turned-bison disease brucellosis, critics went crazy.

It wasn't just that the feds were leasing something owned by the public to a private businessman who makes a portion of his living selling buffalo meat to his 44 Ted's Montana Grills. It was that in exchange for caring for the bison for a five-year period, Turner would get to keep 75 percent of the herd's calves for conservation.

Recently, four of the biggest critics filed a lawsuit against the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, contending that the animals are a public resource that should be shielded from privatization.

According to the Billings Gazette, the suits' plaintiffs said the state should either move the animals onto public land or pay Turner to take care of them rather than give up their young as compensation.

But last week, Gallatin County Judge Holly Brown dismissed the request, stating that state lawmakers gave the the state wildlife agency broad decision-making authority in the management of bison.

Lucky for Turner.

He now gets the babies of some of America's most "heritage rich" buffalos. In his defense, he may actually be helping to contribute to a brucellosis-free bison herd in Yellowstone.

According to park spokesman Al Nash, the bison in question are descendants of the original herds that roamed across America until the 19th century. But, as you probably know, white hunters nearly slaughtered them to extinction.

Nash says a few "forward-thinking" ranchers saw the carnage and captured some wooly creatures. In addition, about two dozen wild bison in Yellowstone survived. To increase their numbers, the park brought in some of the captured bison to breed and multiply. But Nash says that around that time, the park used cattle for meat and milk to feed its visitors. The cows had brucellosis, which they gave to the bison.

One hundred years later, when the park has tested for brucellosis, some 40 to 60 percent of bison have tested positive for exposure to it. "This doesn't mean they're infected," says Nash. "Just that they're exposed."

But with brucellosis effectively eradicated in cows, ranchers around the park have a "contentious" relationship with bison.

For years, federal officials gunned down ones that walked across the invisible park boundary. For several months per year now, the bison are "hazed" back into the park, in the weeks before, and during prime cattle grazing seasons. Brucellosis isn't airborne, but, says Nash, "if a bison aborts a fetus infected with material and then cows then consume the fetus or lick the material," the ever-important Montana cow could become infected with brucellosis.

Many cattle ranchers support the state's ongoing attempts to fix the brucellosis problem. But according to Red Jackson, a five-year volunteer for the bison advocacy group Buffalo Field Campaign, the whole Turner­ Division of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks relationship is problematic.

Jackson believes that the state has given Turner priority over several regional native tribes when it comes to park bison, although in 2011, it did give 60 "trial bison" to the Fort Bellknap Indian Reservation. But Jackson said several other native tribes petitioned to get the 83 bison Turner ended up with but were "dismissed on grounds of technicalities."

Turner, meanwhile, got the 83 and is feeding them and caring for them while the study continues. The idea, says Nash, is to put the quarantined animals "out on the landscape."

The whole idea, says Nash, is to see if, through control and breeding, state and federal wildlife managers can eradicate brucellosis in Yellowstone bison, which, in turn, would seem to make life for the animals Lakota Indians called Tatanka better on all fronts.